Gwen Jacob: Advocating for the Legal and Societal Equality of Women


Gwen Jacob did not intend to start a movement or become a spokesperson. Nevertheless, her refusal to accept societal and legal double standards changed what women were allowed to wear in Canada.


In July 1991, Jacob, then a 19-year old University of Guelph student, was in downtown Guelph with her friend Suzie. They saw a number of shirtless men going about their day, outside in the heat. Jacob turned to her friend and commented on how unfair it was that men were allowed to take off their shirts but women were not. Jacob decided to remover her shirt to escape the heat. She described the action as “ripping off that whole patriarchal definition of my body.” She was spotted by a police officer, arrested, and charged with committing an “Indecent Act” under the Criminal Code of Canada, Section 173.1 (A). She fought the charges, arguing that there was nothing sexual or indecent about the naked breasts. She was found guilty in January 1992. She appealed the decision, but this appeal was dismissed. Jacob would not give up the fight. To her, this was more than just a pursuit of legal equality, it was a challenge to society’s unequal treatment of female and male bodies.


Inspired by her feminist beliefs, Jacob appealed once more to the Ontario Court of Appeals. In December 1996, the court ruled in Jacob’s favour stating “there was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in what [Jacob] did. The scope of her activity was limited and was entirely non-commercial. No one who was offended was forced to continue to look at her.” The Crown elected not to appeal this decision. Since her legal victory, Jacob's case has been cited, and the findings, upheld in many other court cases throughout the country.


After her victory, Jacob was proud of what she had accomplished but she chose to focus on her private and professional life. Today, Jacob is the mother of two children and she runs her own business. She lives with her family in Toronto. While she generally avoids the public spotlight, her commitment to the cause of gender equality remains as strong as ever. In 2010, she returned to Guelph for the Top Freedom Day of Pride. Initially hesitant to attend, Jacob was convinced to do so by her daughters who were proud of their mother’s accomplishments.


In 2015, she appeared as a speaker at a Top Freedom Rally in Waterloo. The rally was held in response to an earlier event where three women, sisters Alysha, Tameera, and Nadia Mohamed, were improperly detained by the police and told to cover up after riding their bikes topless. In speaking to the crowd, Jacob focused on the issue of rape culture that still threatens the safety and well-being of women throughout the country. She also spoke against victim-blaming, asserting that women are too often told they provoke unwanted sexual activity or attention by what they choose to wear. 

Close-up photograph of Gwen Jacob protesting outside of Guelph courthouse with the organization Topfreedom. She is wearing a jacket with purple, white and yellow on it. She is standing in front of a hand painted sign with words cut off that cannot be read completely.

Gwen Jacob protesting outside of the Guelph courthouse in 1991 with the organization TopFreedom.  Jacob has her mouth open as if she's talking or shouting.  She is wearing a purple, white and yellow jacket, a purple top and blue jeans.  She is standing in front of a banner.